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MINIATURE: Tradition, Technique, Technology

October 17, 2008

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Pakistani Art, gaining increasing attention in international markets for more than a few years now, has been able to ride the phenomenal wave of popularity that has swallowed contemporary art from other Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, and most significantly, from China. And as Pakistani art goes, the genre that has 'struck gold', as the saying goes, is most definitely that of contemporary miniature painting.
The art of the miniature has leaped hurdles, sidestepped political and social changes, and overcome the changing availability of materials and technologies, to keep itself intact and recognisable. The themes tackled are contemporary versions of the historic artform — narrative depictions of ordinary life, social cultures and norms, momentous events and every-day ones. However, it is exactly this continuity, this clinging to the past that a recent exhibition at the Aicon Gallery in New York to challenged.
 
The exhibition titled 'Tradition, technique, technology — I' was a group show of four Pakistani miniaturists Ayesha Durrani, Sumaira Tazeen, Amjad Talpur and Ahsan Jamal. The common element in the work of all four artists was a tangential connection that each had with the definition of the actual term 'Miniature Art', and their reinterpretation of this phrase.
 
Breaking further away than most miniaturists in their interpretations, the works at this gallery in any other setting could completely break away from any aesthetically recognisable connection to the term altogether; but brought together by that common fact, they invited viewers to question not only the term 'Miniature Art' in general but also their own specific relationship to it.
 
Sumaira Tazeen has such a strong grasp of the technique of painting in the miniature style that her work is the most easily recognisable as relating to the genre, even if her subject matter, compositions and imagery is inherently different. Her small vasli paintings explore themes of the role of women in an excessively male-dominated society. Through the imagery of sewing and mending torn edges, attaching buttons in order to pull together gaping holes, the typical role a woman occupies in a household is explored and discussed.
 
Ayesha Durrani's themes, though similar to Tazeen's, are depicted in a starkly different way. Using a headless female mannequin as substitute for a woman is her way of commenting on the impression as well as the expectations that lie before women in their household in particular but also in a conservative society at large. Men require little of a woman other than her body to be beautiful — having independent ideas, thoughts or impressions is not a requirement for a healthy marriage, in fact much the opposite, in Durrani's observation.
 
Coveted as an object of purely physical desire, rather than being valued as being capable of possessing anything more, the woman has to either accept that role or suffer the consequences.
 
The art of the miniature has leaped hurdles, sidestepped political and social changes, and overcome the changing availability of materials and technologies, to keep itself intact and recognisable.
 
Claustrophobically embedded amidst an environment of large roses, Durrani's mannequins appear just as she wants them to symbols of beauty and sensuality, vacant of everything else that could make them 'real'. The feeling of emptiness is particularly emphasised in certain paintings which depict the mannequins with their midsection missing, or deleted.
 
According to Durrani, this particular version of depicting the mannequin related very personally to her own life. Her long marriage, absent of any children, makes her question the emptiness and her assigned role as a 'woman' at the most fundamental level.
 
Ahsan Jamal's paintings on show very specifically explore a particular type of mark-making technique, and, where they lack aesthetically in interesting imagery or intellectually in subject matter, they make up for in a meticulously delivered technique, that is repeated over and over in small series of landscapes or less overtly recognisable images.
 
Series II, particularly, is fascinating as it consists of thumb impressions, where each image is composed of various combinations of prints. The entire series was displayed as one, and this made it all the more impressive in each subtle variation.
 
Amjad Talpur's work is perhaps most innovative and adventurous in his interpretation of the essential elements of the miniature painting. Isolating particular elements of the narrative that he wishes to depict, he has created each piece as an optical puzzle, so that viewed from different angles, the image changes altogether.
 
Usually containing either a single word or an easily recognisable symbol, each side creates either a pun or a distinct message. The only one of the artists in the show to address political, religious, and societal issues at a broad level, Talpur has approached each piece with humour, ingenuity and a real seriousness and broadness of vision.
 
The opening reception of the exhibition interestingly comprised a diverse group of attendees. The majority, as one would expect, were expat South Asians, supporting the exhibition and the artists. But there was a much larger minority than expected of other New Yorkers, merely there for an art opening, much in the manner that they would attend any other gallery opening regardless of the genre of work on display. It was a true testament to the gaining popularity of the work by these artists in particular and miniaturists in general.
 
It is also to the credit of these particular artists for extending the realm of the term 'Miniature' painting, particularly Talpur, who seems not only to have either abstracted or moved away completely from the pre-established parameters of the genre, but has taken on themes that none of the other artists seemed to warrant as essential.
 
Without limiting his scope, or needlessly complicating his palette, he has achieved an extremely high standard of work, comparable not only to any other Miniaturist but rather any contemporary artist dealing with concept, technique and the delicate combination of the two. 
 
Top left Amjad Talpur
Below Ayesha Durrani